The changing of seasons can trigger cluster headaches, which happen one or more times a day for a few weeks or months.
Clusters are common in the fall and spring, when we adjust our clocks for daylight saving time. They’re also common in January and February, when the days are short, and in July and August, when they’re long, says Brian M. Grosberg, MD, director of the Montefiore Headache Center in New York.
Because they can be seasonal, people often mistake them for headaches caused by allergies, sinusitis, or stress.
What’s the Link?
One possible reason is changes in the length of the days.
When the seasons shift, so does the amount of sunlight you get. In the summer, days are longer, nights shorter. Then, in the winter, you get the opposite.
Changes in how much sunlight you get can change your body’s sleep-wake cycle, and that can lead to your head pain.
Symptoms of Seasonal Cluster Headaches
You may get:
Severe pain behind or around your eye. It can be more intense than a migraine.
Periods of pain. Your headaches happen several times a day for a few weeks or months, which are called “cluster periods."
Breaks between attacks. You can go long amounts of time between cluster periods with no headache pain.
Headaches around the same time every year. January, February, July, August, fall, and spring are common.
Headaches around the same time of day or night. They tend to peak from 1 to 2 a.m., 1 to 3 p.m., and 9 p.m., Grosberg says, but attacks can happen at any time.
Pain that wakes you up. You may get up during the night because of pain. Some people wake up 1-2 hours after going to bed.
Extreme alertness during cluster periods. People who get this type of headache “seem to be hyper-aroused and alert, often pacing the room or feeling as if they must remain in constant motion," says Allen A. Towfigh, MD, medical director of New York Neurology & Sleep Medicine.
Tips to Avoid Cluster Headaches
You may want to ask your doctor if you should try some of these things:
Melatonin. This is a hormone that your body makes to control sleep-wake cycles. You may have lower levels of it during cluster periods, especially when you have a headache.
Taking a melatonin supplement may help your sleep patterns. Though there is no proof yet that it can help prevent cluster headaches, some headache specialists believe that it is worth trying.
Preventive medication. It may help if your cluster headaches last more than 2 weeks. These drugs include:
- High blood pressure pills such as calcium channel blockers — especially verapamil (Calan, Verelan)
- Anti-seizure medications like topiramate (Topamax, Trokendi XR)
- Lithium, a bipolar medication
Doctors usually recommend that you take them daily.
Also, avoid common triggers during a cluster period. These include:
- Alcohol. You’re more sensitive to its effects, so even small amounts can set off a headache. It’s OK to drink in moderation when you’re not in a cluster period, as long as it’s OK with your doctor.
- Cigarettes. Smoking can make your headaches worse. Avoid other people’s smoke, too.
- Foods with nitrates. These include bacon and preserved meats.
Medications that can widen (dilate) blood vessels. These drugs include nitroglycerin. But don’t stop taking this or any medicine unless your doctor tells you to.
- Daytime naps. These may interfere with your sleep patterns and make it harder for your body to stay well.
- Heat. Apart from hot weather, this could also include hot baths or showers, or physical activity.